Neoliberal Eugenics 1: Selective Abortion

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CW: discussion of abortion, murder, infanticide, filicide, suicide, incest, ableism, death. All I can say is please do NOT watch this if you’re not ready for some dark stuff. Go watch this video about kittens instead.

Hello class, today we’re starting a little series on Neoliberal Eugenics. It’s sure to be a fun light-hearted discussion.

Eugenics is wrong.

Oh wow, this is great. Jeremy Strawman and I on the same side! Not exactly a controversial issue but I’ll take it. Oh, and congratulations on the incoming straw baby by the way, you and your wife must be so excited.

Yeah can’t wait to play ball with the boy.

I’m glad you’re excited, but what if you found out in utero that the kid can’t play ball? At least not in the same way you can.

What do you mean?

I mean: would you abort a disabled baby? That’s the point I’m driving at, here.

Well, uh, I-I think It’s a woman’ right to choose. Uh. Bodily autonomy. Feminism. [awkwardly clears throat] 

Intro: Neoliberal Eugenics: Selective Abortions

I mean not all women can have babies. And not all people who have babies are women. Trans rights. Hysterectomy rights. And of course all people have a right to bodily autonomy. But why would you no longer want to keep a baby with a disability?

Uh it uh I mean

Is this uncomfortable for you?

I’m not a eugenicist because I think women have the right to abortions.

No, no I agree. Anyone with a womb should be allowed to abort for any reason. But why abort a baby with disabilities? What would an able-bodied baby give you that a disabled one can’t?

Okay. Would you prefer if your baby were disabled?

I can’t afford any kind of baby right now. I also never want to have a baby for my own personal moral reasons but that’s beside the point. If, in the future, I made the decision to have a baby, that probably means I’m somehow in the financial position to do so. If I had the resources, I wouldn’t abort a baby with disabilities, assuming I want a baby at all. But I’d need the resources. 
I hate to say “but what about the parents?” but what about the parents and all the lies they are told about raising so-called “special needs” children? Gifted children also have special needs and require extra resources, but you don’t see anyone saying we ought to abort them. Tom Shakespeare (no relation?) asserts that “the medical profession and the context in which reproductive decisions are made, undermines the capacity for free choice.” Obstetricians, he goes on, basically outright advise termination for fetuses which test positive for disorders, specifically Down syndrome. Geneticists and genetic counselors do considerably less directive counseling, thankfully. Studies have shown that families with disabled children are under comparable amounts of strain to any other family. There is no difference in divorce rate, for instance. And don’t believe scarcity myths about how society has too few resources to care for disabled people. Here’s a video about why overpopulation isn’t really an issue and we have more than enough resources to go around, I don’t have time to go over that here.
However, this article examining family well-being across socioeconomic class on a number of different factors concludes that “Poor families of children with a disability will be affected by poverty more severely than either poor families of nondisabled children or affluent families of children with a disability.” Additionally, the longer a child spends in poverty, the more likely they are to develop a mental or physical health condition due to stress or malnutrition. Poverty is already terrible, but disability makes it worse for children and parents alike. If you are not financially secure then having a child with a costly disability can seriously hurt your family’s well-being. Not for any reason intrinsic to your child, let me be clear on that, that child is valuable and has every right to be alive and happy.  Now, if a person threatens to bankrupt you, alienate your friends and family, and make you spend the rest of your life laboring without pay or assistance unless you kill your child for him, then that’s the bad guy. That’s the asshole here, not the necessary labor that goes unpaid, certainly not the child that you would have to eliminate to regain autonomy and function in a society without social safety nets; it’s the asshole who decides your child’s life isn’t valuable, the asshole who convinces your friends and family you made the “illogical” decision if you choose not to kill your child, the asshole who takes all your money just so your child can live. 
I’m not saying people with disabled children are “brave warriors” or anything like that, and I’m sure as hell not excusing filicide, you should be willing to make sacrifices for your child regardless of their ability. But too often, disability activists ignore the fact that there are some extra sacrifices which have to be made, especially for those who aren’t financially secure, and instead only focus on shaming bad and abusive parents (which yeah they deserve the shame) without contextualizing this behavior and discussing the disgusting financial incentive to abort disabled babies. Disabled people, we need to shame society AND parents. We can do both. And way, way, waaay too often, the much bigger problem is that parents of disabled children focus on changing their child rather than changing society. 
We don’t talk about the cost of life because there’s this big taboo against it. But you know who makes taboos? The people who profit from them.
You can say that we’re expensive. It’s not a secret kept from disabled people that our mere existence is costly. But also remember your child could become disabled or turn out to be disabled or neurodivergent at any moment. Autism doesn’t even show up until your kid is a toddler or older.
But, again, I’m not having any babies so my words are cheap.

Exactly. We planned for a baby that won’t be so…time consuming. You know they’re talking about figuring out tests for autism in the womb, those Autism Speaks people. It’s good you decided not to pass on your conditions to any potential offspring.

My conditions aren’t genetic? Or, at least, there’s weak evidence for a genetic link in my case. In fact, the link between genetics and most disabilities is far weaker than people tend to assume. Let’s not get started on Autism Speaks…more like Autistics…be…silent. Here’s a video about it by a person with autism. The link between genetics and autism is similarly weak, there isn’t a set of “autism genes” that mean your baby is, for sure, going to be autistic. And remember that this is a variable and diverse condition anyway so who knows what “being autistic” would even mean in your baby’s case if researchers were somehow able to test for this in utero. There are of course several health conditions with a strong, established, genetic component, but these are not the majority of disability cases. You don’t inherit complications due to infections or disease, random genetic mutation, birth complications, amputated limbs, psychological trauma, or traumatic brain injury, for instance. 
You can sort of inherit trauma in the form of epigenetic changes, that is, heritable changes in the expression of genes but not the actual DNA itself, which appear to increase your risk of certain diseases, psychological conditions, or disabilities. It’s, by far, no guarantee that because your mom had depression you will definitely have it too, especially if you’re raised in an environment conducive to good mental health. (Does that even exist in America?) 
It can be helpful to be aware of family medical history to know any potential health risks you may inherit, I’m not opposed to being informed. For example, based on my family history, it’s likely that I’ll one day have diabetes so I try to eat well, exercise regularly, watch out for symptoms, and monitor my blood glucose levels. But I may never have diabetes, and if I do it’s not going to be such a huge deal as if this were to happen randomly because it will (hopefully) be caught early. Epigenetic therapies are currently being explored for treatment and prevention of diseases such as cancer and diabetes. 

I mean, you don’t know, maybe all those people who became disabled were genetically determined to screw up and hurt themselves or they put themselves in bad situations for their mental health.

I-uh- Wow. You do know there are such things as random events, right?For instance, one study found that 55%,  the majority of the cases they studied, of intellectual disability were due to a random mutation– not anything that could be traced to the parents’ own genetics. Random mutations can happen to any sperm, ova, or zygote. It’s an essential element of evolution, sometimes it’s a feature, but it’s not something that can be controlled or planned. It’s complicated.
Humans have gotten this far due to our incredible propensity for adaptation. My biological anthropology professor said that thanks to our diverse genomes and random mutation [bad German accent] “you could throw-” (he was German)”you could throw a bunch of lily-white honkeys on an island and within 100 generations, they would all be chocolate black.” We need an occasionally randomly mutating and diverse gene pool- genetically diverse, ethnically diverse, and neurodiverse- in order to survive and thrive as a species in a variety of conditions. 

Sure, I support diversity. But do you think all disabilities need saving? Like should moms keep drinking during pregnancy so babies with FAS continue to be born?

Not drinking is protective, not abortive, and has nothing to do with genetic diversity. I’m not saying people living with FAS are less valuable or don’t have valuable experience, just like no one is saying people who had polio before there was a vaccine were not valuable people. Cough FDR cough. If the pain can be prevented then prevent it, but that can only work if we can treat the disorder separately from the whole person. If the disorder can be treated without losing the person or sacrificing genetic diversity or diversity of experience, then, by all means, do that. But if you’re killing an entire person to get rid of a non-communicable health condition, maybe think on why you’d feel the need for that. Is it for the good of the child? Is it for the greater good? How do you define that? Maybe it’s because our current system places greater value on a certain type of person? Maybe it’s because our system punishes you for not practicing eugenics by not providing a social safety net.

But what about genetic disorders like hemophilia? Should we have let royal families keep breeding with each other?

Diversity, Jeremy.  No, it’s not logically inconsistent to frown upon selectively breeding out what are considered disabilities and not be okay with incest. This goes back to protective not abortive. The royal family * was * practicing selective breeding, that’s historically what incest has been. It didn’t go well. A family tree should be a tree- not a Spirograph. I can be 100 % supportive of a disabled baby who had no choice in being a product of incest and their right to existence and acceptance, but not supportive of incest itself. Look at these dogs who have any number of health problems due to selective breeding, I support them but not puppy mills. Don’t-don’t do generational incest guys, okay.

So you’re Ok with breeding out disorders from incest populations but not okay with breeding out disorders in general? How does that make sense?

Recessive conditions exist regardless of incest, incest just makes it worse. And people can obviously inherit these conditions outside of incest. H-how did we get stuck on this incest thing? Look, some genetic conditions actually come from useful adaptations, such as sickle cell anemia. If you carry sickle cell trait, a recessive trait, then you have added immunity against West Nile virus, which is why this trait is common in both African and Mediterranean populations.
Professor Robert Sapolsky has hypothesized that conditions such as OCD, schizophrenia, and epilepsy have been selected for due to potentially massive contributions to religious, spiritual, and philosophical thought. Go check out his lecture, link in the description. In fact, I recommend his whole Stanford lecture series if you have any interest in Human Behavioral Biology. Basically: maybe a little bit of schizophrenia can actually be advantageous if you’re in the right society for it. And no, neither Professor Sapolsky nor I are saying you have to be “crazy” to believe in religion. Ugh, the C word. There are many well-studied advantages to religious thought and experience. Carl Jung, in fact, said that he would have diagnosed himself with schizophrenia though he channeled his experiences into his work on the collective unconscious, and received great spiritual comfort from his hallucinations. You can read about these experiences and experiments in The Red Book, though I personally haven’t read it so I don’t know if it’s any good. Due to migraine, I often have visual hallucinations which are entirely harmless and, sometimes, maybe even a little fun.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who also experienced these sorts of migraines, wrote in his book Hallucinations:
“To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future. And we need freedom (or at least the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves, whether with telescopes and microscopes and our ever-burgeoning technology or in states of mind which allow us to travel to other worlds, to transcend our immediate surroundings. We need detachment of this sort as much as we need engagement in our lives.”― Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations
That’s not to say these conditions can’t be seriously distressing, or even that they aren’t mostly distressing, I’m not placing all the blame on the way society is structured. No matter what world we live in, compulsions are going to be frustrating for people with OCD, even if they’re validated and accepted. I’m simply giving examples of how such traits may be adaptive. 
And no, autism is not the next step in human evolution. Stop that. That’s not how evolution works, autism has always been around we’re just now recognizing and diagnosing it. In fact, here’s a little secret, many children who may better fit a diagnosis of, say ADHD, are often instead falsely diagnosed with ASD in order for therapists to receive enough funding from insurance companies to provide long-term care and medication. And girls with ASD often go undiagnosed because symptoms present differently. So basically we don’t have a clear picture on how many people have ASD now or at any other point in time.
My point is, all conditions genetic, environmental, or epigenetic exist on a spectrum and this is all way more complicated than “disability bad, don’t have disabled babies.”

But isn’t disability bad? Don’t you think it would be better to avoid making people with disabilities who will suffer when we could choose to make people without?

Why do you think it’s bad to live with a disability?

Because, you know, you’re in pain. You’re tired and can’t do much. You’ve said you often have entire days where you just lie on the floor in pain from migraines or you can’t move due to fatigue. That’s not even accounting for the social stigma.

It’s really not THAT bad. The worst part is the stress from not knowing if I qualify for SSI yet and all the hoops I’m having to jump through to prove my disabilities are real. I feel happiness just the same as any able-bodied person. 
I don’t care for the pain, but it doesn’t define me, perhaps it has even contributed in some positive way to the person I am. There are so many foundational philosophers, writers, scientists, artists, and historical icons who were bedridden, housebound, non-neurotypical, or otherwise disabled. Michaelangelo, Isacc Newton, Alexander the Great, Leonardo Da Vinci, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Kant, Mozart, Decartes, Gramsci, Socrates, Pythagoras, Nietzsche, Aristotle… There’s no way I can list them all, if you need more names there’s a link in the description. It was noted by a Prussian cop spying on Marx that he had “no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up” which led like 20 people in a Facebook group to speculate that Marx may have had Non24 or some other kind of circadian rhythm sleep disorder. We owe so much of our history and philosophy to those who were disabled or non-neurotypical, why are we trying to develop tests to abort them now?
It can be argued that these people were great despite their impairments but how can we reasonably separate the people from the conditions, especially in the case of neurological or mental health disorders? Pain doesn’t necessarily lead to productive reflection; social exclusion can breed as many bad ideas as good. I’m not here trying to romanticize suffering like some kind of young adult novelist. But perhaps erasing what we currently view as disabilities may also erase essential and valuable perspectives. And even if no disabled person ever again contributes to the Western canon, that doesn’t make their lives less worth living.

So I don’t want to sound like a eugenicist but isn’t it ~natural~ for people to not want disabled babies? 

Not at all. People have been taking care of the disabled and elderly since there have been people. It’s no more natural to leave the disabled to die than it is to work exactly 40 hours per week or invest in the stock market. These are just things we made up to fit our current society. There are plenty of skeletal remains of full-grown adults with deformities or signs of successful surgery who were clearly cared for throughout life. Though, of course, many of these surgeries were misguided. One of the most famous skeletons of all, King Tutenkamen, had significant disabilities but you can bet your ass he wasn’t about to be left for dead.

But don’t chimps, our closest living relative do it?

We’re also just as closely related to bonobos but you don’t see us solving conflicts by rubbing each other’s genitals. I mean, if I get a vote, I vote we do that instead of shooting each other, I’ll be the first to enlist in the upcoming genital rubbing war. 
Remember Robert Sapolsky? Well, he’s probably best known for his work with stress and aggression in baboons. Baboons being “[Sapolsky clip].” In one particular group of baboons he studied, the Forest Troop, the alphas all ate trash and died of bovine tuberculosis. Interestingly, the lower-ranking males didn’t fight their way up the ranks, beating up smaller baboons along the way. Nor did the females. In fact, more pro-social behavior began to be rewarded within this group, bullying behaviors, like biting the smaller females, became rare. Sapolsky assumed this would end with the influx of new males from other groups, males migrate to other troops around puberty. However, when he returned 6 years later there was only 1 male from the original group left and yet this more equanimous culture persisted. And persisted for decades. All the members, even the lowest-ranking members, have significantly reduced levels of stress compared to their own population in the Before Alpha Die-off times (abbreviated B.A.D.) and similar contemporaneous control groups who didn’t have alpha extinction events.
They still fought, of course, but males in Forest Troop can be distinguished from other troops by fighting within rank, that is, they only picked on someone their own size rather than bullying and beating up easy targets. And males of all ranks in Forest Troop reciprocate grooming with females and groom one another, a behavior considered incredibly rare [Sapolsky clip]. This is a major cultural shift in a primate population which led to more care for physically weaker members and hey it looks like it went pretty well for everyone. Until they found more trash and their troop kind of fragmented since they didn’t really need to rely on one another for subsistence anymore. My point is: what is “natural” even for typically aggressive primates, appears to be more shaped by environmental and cultural factors than we once thought. If baboons can adapt to being nicer to one another and all benefit, then surely we can do it too. 

I don’t get your point. Do you think abortion should be outlawed so people can discover the joys of having a disabled baby?

I think we need a social safety net which is actually safe and then we can talk about selective abortion in a way that isn’t tainted by the morally reprehensible values of capitalism. Saying all disabilities are equally good or bad is a trap that both disability activists and proponents of selective abortions fall into. I understand that if a person is religious then they might argue all souls are valued the same but I don’t believe in souls so I’m obviously not comfortable articulating any religious arguments here. I’ll leave that to people in the comments. 
I believe we need to re-evaluate how we view suffering and pain and understand that “disability” is not synonymous with or even necessarily related to these words. But we also have to face the uncomfortable truth that there are some, not many, not at all the majority, but some conditions detectable in utero which are almost entirely full of suffering and pain, like severe organ defects which lead to death within anywhere from minutes to months. And disabilities like infantile Tay Sachs for which symptoms usually start at around 6 months of age and result in death before 3-5 years of age. Outright banning people from aborting fetuses with disabilities detected in utero would force these parents to watch their baby die horribly, painfully, and slowly. And perhaps some people see value in that experience but others do not want to deal with that level of emotional strain and I don’t think they should have to. 
My mom worked in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for close to 30 years. It was so hard for her to watch parents try every treatment available for certain babies knowing they had little to no chance of survival and then inevitably have to watch those babies die slowly, painfully, and expensively. I know it was her job, but that doesn’t diminish the pain of watching babies die constantly. She, of course, had a few success stories of children living past their prognosis and having happy lives with minimal medical intervention, but these were a tiny minority of cases. Being so close to these babies who maybe would have been aborted had the parents known of their condition, some of whom lived, but most of whom die, my mom supports selective abortion. Not so much for Down Syndrome or what she considers minor impairments which generally don’t require much medical care. But had these babies been aborted or euthanized, she argues, then more care could have been directed to babies with better chances of survival. For her, it’s about resource management. And I think it’s important to remember when discussing selective abortion that medical resources are currently limited in this way, my mom was severely overworked and underpaid. To be clear: medical resources don’t have to be limited, this is yet another case of manufactured scarcity. Due to neoliberal austerity measures, hospitals are constantly trying to cut costs to raise profits, that’s the way it is and because of that I can understand my mom’s perspective. However, I think if there were fewer labor-intensive babies being born then rather than there being less work for nurses, the hospital would simply hire fewer nurses and keep their workloads pretty much the same as now. 
Basically, I believe that regardless of disability, if the parents don’t want that baby, don’t think they could care for and love that baby, then they should not have it. But they need to be fully informed of the disability prognosis and support systems present in their community. If parents find in utero that their baby will have a condition which requires extra care and they know they won’t be able to provide that care, or feel they would resent that child for needing care and find themselves loving the fetus less and less, then, I feel it would be better for the baby to not be born rather than be given up for adoption or go unloved. It’s a hard belief to justify to myself, a baby who, had there been some way of knowing my future conditions, would maybe have been aborted. Not by my mom, specifically, but by other parents possibly. But when it comes down to it, I value the parents’ bodily autonomy more than the life of any fetus, disabled or otherwise, and support the parents’ right to an informed choice. In an ideal world we would value the diversity of our species and we wouldn’t have an economic system founded upon eugenics, and I suspect this would be a much more interesting and productive discussion, but this is clearly not an ideal world.

The fact that there are children in the foster care system is why I can’t morally justify having a child of my own. My grandpa was adopted, tons of my cousins are adopted, it’s always seemed, to me, like the right option. Peter Singer, yes, the animal rights guy, stated that both biological and adoptive parents prefer able-bodied babies as if this fact proves inherent loss of value. However, Harriet McBryde Johnson contended, non-white babies have the same chance of being adopted in our current foster care system as disabled babies, but no one is saying we ought to abort black babies because they will go unwanted. (Well some people might say that). Being female in many societies is functionally a disability, even in our society women have a lower earning potential than men, and we’ve seen what’s happened with the sex ratio with the rise of sex-selective abortions in China and India. When asked what the difference was between aborting a disabled baby and aborting a mixed-race baby, Peter Singer responded that, unlike race, disability makes a person “worse off.” To which Harriett McBryde Johnson responded: 
“Are we ”worse off”? I don’t think so. Not in any meaningful sense. There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs.”

Alright, so as you noticed this video is part of a series. Stay tuned for the next video which will be about Euthanasia, manufactured consent, and a continued discussion on the concept of “quality of life.”

I probably said some stuff that people disabled or otherwise will be mad about here, but you know what, I had too many subscribers anyway. 


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